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December 2015

Sun Set

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It was an odd feeling, watching Mike D’Antoni return to his old stomping ground, sitting on the bench for the first time in his new role as an assistant coach for the hapless 76ers. He had returned to Phoenix as a visitor before, during his forgettable tenures with the Knicks and Lakers, but this was different.

It was different because, had D’Antoni waited a bit longer to give his old buddy Jerry Colangelo the thumbs up on the idea of easing his way back into coaching in a mostly pressure-less position alongside Brett Brown, perhaps he would have seen an ad for his old job in the coaching classifieds.

Then again, after last night, D’Antoni’s seat on the Philly bench probably feels pretty cozy.

Just when it seemed like it could not get any worse for the Phoenix Suns this season, they lose at home in rather convincing fashion to a team that now boasts a 2-30 record. Suns’ star Eric Bledsoe went down with a knee injury early in the second quarter, but the Suns were already down 12 by the time that happened, leaving them fresh out of any reasonable excuses, as if there is such a thing when you lose to a team whose win percentage resembles the price of discounted items at a dollar store.

Without question, a large share of the blame for Phoenix’s underwhelming 12-20 start falls on head coach Jeff Hornacek, whom the Suns decided not to extend beyond the final year of his contract (this season).

There is a terrifying senselessness to the way the Suns play, an underlying feeling that shouldn’t fit with a team believed to be on the rise in the Western Conference. There are some admirable derivatives, to be sure, like their commitment to a pace-and-space offense and a roster composed of players who, at least hypothetically, fit the system perfectly. But this team is so careless, so reckless and so uninspired, and Hornacek has done a poor job of finding the right lineup combinations to maximize his team’s performance on both ends of the court (Phoenix ranks 20th in offensive and defensive efficiency). Worst of all, the Suns seem to wilt in tense situations, and they play without passion.

Hornacek has not had an easy go of things during his time in charge of the Suns. The franchise’s identity has shifted time and time again. Supposed front office wonderkid Ryan McDonough, who was a Danny Ainge pupil in Boston before taking the Suns’ job in 2013, has failed to help Hornacek develop a stable and cohesive locker room.

Since Hornacek was hired in 2013, the Suns have tried out three different iterations of the two-point guard setup. It started with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in 2013-14, evolved to Dragic and Bledsoe with Isaiah Thomas coming off the bench in 2014-15 and turned into just Bledsoe and Brandon Knight after a pair of deadline day deals last season that sent Dragic to Miami and Thomas to Boston.

Considering the modest-to-nonexistent hauls Phoenix got for Dragic and Thomas, the fact that it shipped the Lakers’ protected 2015 first-round pick, perhaps the most valuable asset the team had behind Bledsoe, for Knight put the team all-in with its latest backcourt duo.

Although the Suns have struggled this season, the Bledsoe/Knight experiment has not been a disaster. Both players have performed better with each other on the court and they are each having career years. Bledsoe and Knight are both averaging a career-high 20 points per game; the Thunder and Blazers are the only other two teams with two players to accomplish such a feat. Bledsoe is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range, which would be the best mark of his career when factoring in volume, and Knight is shooting well enough from deep for the Suns to rank 2nd in basketball behind the Warriors in 3-point accuracy.

So why are the Suns struggling if their latest point guard pair seems to be working out?

It didn’t help that the Suns attached themselves to the most volatile set of twins in the NBA in recent years. It is almost as if Markieff Morris is afraid of the monsters in his closet and only felt save when brother was around. While Marcus has done quite well acclimating to life in Detroit, Markieff has spent most of this season sulking, playing poorly and, most recently, throwing towels at his head coach.

Morris is a player who seemed to have the perfect skillset to operate as a power forward in the Suns’ spread offense. He can space the floor around central pick-and-rolls and he was the team’s best one-on-one shot creator. If opponents went small to match the Suns pace-and-space style, Morris was an effective counter thanks to his solid postup game; he can blow by bigger defenders and punisher smaller ones. He should be thriving as the secondary scorer for the Suns once Bledsoe and Knight have probed the defense, much in the way his brother has done in Detroit when Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls yield nothing.

It should be noted that Morris had good reason to be upset with Phoenix’s management, not necessarily because the team traded his brother, but because it traded his brother in attempt to open up cap space for a player who would replace him in the starting lineup. I actually think moving to a sixth man role wouldn’t have been the worst idea for Morris, but he clearly intended to remain the starter and the Suns were caught in an awkward position once Marcus was gone and their prized free agent was looking at real estate in San Antonio.

Still though, Morris is a very talented player who has sabotaged his trade value with his trivial behavior this season. Now the Suns are left with very few ways remedy the situation, including and likely limited to: selling Morris for pennies on the dollar and/or firing Hornacek.

Things looked so bright for the Suns during the offseason when they were a surprise entrant in the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes. Even though the Spurs ended up signing Aldridge, the fact that Phoenix was the No. 2 option was a big deal for a Suns franchise that had been searching for a star. And although the Suns did not sign Aldridge, they did get Tyson Chandler, a veteran pick-and-roll finisher who was meant to mentor the likes of Bledsoe and Knight.

And yet, here the Suns are, on the brink of another franchise facelift. Their Kentucky backcourt might be able to work together, but it doesn’t seem like this is the best environment in terms of teammates and coach for them to succeed.

Is it time to sell? If Phoenix’s only goal is to push for a playoff spot this season, then no; the ironic nature of the West this season sees the Suns just 2 games back of the Jazz for the 8th seed at the moment, and perhaps a few months is too small a sample to write off this Suns group as a contender for the 8th seed.

But if Phoenix has higher ambitions than that going forward, then it is time for a new head coach and a freshly revamped roster.

Because the Suns can’t set any lower than this.


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Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 5.37.48 PM

I still remember the first time I went to watch Kobe Bryant play. It was 2009 and my Aunt Becky had bought me two tickets to watch the Lakers play the Spurs. My mom and I drove up to the game from my hometown of Corpus Christi (about a two-hour journey up I-35 to San Antonio) and arrived 30 minutes before the doors opened so we could get in line to get in as soon as possible.

Growing up in South Texas, I was a part of a family full of Spurs fans. Because they were on local TV all of the time, they were the only NBA team I was intensely familiar with growing up, but the only fond childhood memories of them that I have involve Ginobili, a player whose game always resonated with me. The first NBA game I ever went to was between the Spurs and Charlotte Bobcats. Ginobili didn’t play that day, but I remember him being shown on the big screen and then yelling down at him from our modest seats, to which he responded by turning and offering a wave.

Other than Manu, the mid-2000’s Spurs were not exactly awe-inspiring, not when Nazr Mohammed and Antonio McDyess were prominently involved. One day, my family was watching a postseason game between the Spurs and Lakers in the living room at my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Billy’s house. I can’t remember if I knew anything about Kobe back then, but I do know that I rebelled against everyone in the room that day after being one over by Bryant’s style and flash. When I celebrated one of Bryant’s big fourth quarter baskets, I almost got kicked out of the house.

Given that the Spurs had not captured my imagination, it wasn’t heard for Bryant to snatch my fandom. Soon I was like millions of other kids across the country who had gravitated to Bryant from thousands of miles away. So getting to see Kobe up close and personal was as good as it got for me in a sporting context.

Sadly, when we got to the door to have our tickets scanned, an unfortunate error came to light. Apparently, Ticketmaster had a policy that restricts people who don’t have a billing address in the state of Texas from purchasing tickets to Spurs games (and similar policies for teams in other states). My Aunt Becky lives in Pennsylvania, so our tickets were cancelled a day after she bought them, and despite the fact that we had already printed them, we were never notified that the tickets were no good. “Orders by residents outside of this area will be cancelled without notice,” the hidden policy stated.

I should note that the Spurs were nice enough to try to remedy the situation by offering my mom and I tickets to another big game against the defending champion Boston Celtics. While I was obviously not the biggest Celtics supporter given my Lakers fandom, I did enjoy getting to watching Duncan and Garnett go up against each other, and watching the way Ray Allen worked off the ball in person, as well as how Rondo ran the game, offered up a new perspective on their games.

The Spurs customer service group allowed us to stay in the arena, so long as we purchased standing room only tickets, but because we spent a good hour arguing with the customer service department, all of the prime spots in the FanZone were taken. We stayed anyways, hoping an empty seat or two would present itself, but nothing materialized. The AT&T Center has curtains covering the entrances to every section, so I could not even pop my head in to watch the game from the upper deck. Every time I did, an usher shooed me away. I went section-to-section hoping for a kind-hearted usher would let me poke my head through the curtains, just to get a glimpse at Kobe. I never found that usher; instead, one told me that he would call security to come remove me – a 14-year-old – from the building if I didn’t back away from the seating areas. So I did. I went and found a chair in the lobby area and sat there, listening the cheers and jeers of the crowd from afar.

Never again did I want to be stuck behind the curtain.

That was the impetus behind me pursuing sportswriting as something more than a hobby. By that time, I had already started writing on my own blog, which has evolved into this site today, but I wasn’t sure of any the specifics related to writing about sports as a career. Being kept outside of the arena on that night made me dream about watching and writing about games for a living more and more, it made me strive to be someone who would not have to bother with showing a ticket to get passed those curtains.

The second time I went to see Kobe play was in March 2010. There was no credit card fiasco that time; well, unless you count my family splurging to get me a single seat seven rows off the court just to the side of the basket. I’m sure they wished that ticket had been cancelled, too.

Bryant didn’t put on the kind of dominant performance that he usually reserves for his meetings with the Spurs that night, but he was 11-of-16 from the floor for 24 points with six assists and four rebounds, and he was vintage Kobe down the stretch. He roasted George Hill in the midpost in the first half and then did the same to Manu Ginobili, Keith Bogans, Richard Jefferson and Roger Mason Jr. in the second; in retrospect, it was the kind of game that made the Kawhi Leonard trade, which would come a year later, seem like a necessity if the Spurs were going to win in the postseason against the likes of Bryant, Durant and LeBron.

Bryant had some fantastic moments in the second half, including some one-on-one baptisms of Ginobili and two huge 3-pointers to give the Lakers the lead in the fourth. His first was a 30-foot pullup from a stand still position with Mason Jr. on his hip. He rose and fired without a conscious and the ripple of the net sent the Kobe fans in the building to go into a frenzy. And then with just under three minutes left, Gasol found Bryant in the left corner, where he buried a wide-open 3-pointer to put the Lakers up 11 after trailing by seven at the half.

That was the last basketball game I remember going to as a fan. In January 2012, I started writing NBA columns for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, and within a few months I was covering the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets as a credentialed media member. That summer, I also covered Team USA Basketball’s preseason camps and showcases in Las Vegas, New York and Washington, which was the first time I had met and interviewed Kobe in a professional capacity. Someone snapped a photo of me in a scrum with Bryant, and everybody always says I look like the happiest person on the planet in that photo. They’re probably right.

That summer, I wrote a feature about Russell Westbrook being the next Kobe, with comments from both parties. You can find that piece here.

It will soon be four years since I started writing for the Caller-Times. During that time I’ve covered two NBA Finals, four Spurs postseason runs and more than 100 games in total. Perhaps the downfall of Bryant and the Lakers coinciding with it helped, but I certainly do not feel ties to the Lakers like I did before. I once punched a hole in my door when the Lakers lost Game 3 of the 2009 Finals, but I’m not sure it’s possible for me to be that emotionally invested in a single team any more. My fandom, in that sense, has been stripped.

In fact, I root for the Spurs to succeed more so than the Lakers, simply because if the Spurs are good that means I get to cover a more compelling team, and if they are winning then I’ll have a better shot at covering postseason games. That logic seems unthinkable for someone who almost got kicked out of his uncle’s living room for cheering against the Spurs, but I compare it to Stockholm Syndrome. Covering the Spurs upclose and personal makes it impossible not to respect that way they do things, and the way they played in their run to back-to-back Finals forced me to improve as a writer. It was like being on the art beat during Picasso’s reign; if the basketball was that beautiful, I felt my words had to live up to it. It was the same feeling I got when I wrote about Kobe.

Although my support for the Lakers has dwindled in the quest of becoming an objective journalist, one thing I could never shake was my infatuation with Kobe. He was the reason I liked basketball. He was the reason I wrote about it. He is the reason I’m a Sports Media in college. He is the reason I’m covering the NBA.

So on Friday night, I showed up at the AT&T Center for what might be the last time I attend an NBA game as a fan. I wore a black Kobe shirsey, matching the Lakers Hollywood Nights uniform. It was a different feeling watching that game than all of the ones I’ve seen since I started covering the Spurs. I wasn’t worried about Pop’s rotations, the Spurs’ pick-and-roll coverages or the kinds of sets they were running for LaMarcus Aldridge. I was only worried about Kobe. From the moment he came on the floor in warmups, I watched his every move.

I still didn’t find myself clapping or cheering – I sense that part of me has been buried, or at least reserved for when I tear someone apart on FIFA. But I smiled every time he brought the ball up the floor or rose up to shoot.

Kobe started the year chucking at the same rate he has his entire career, only with the success rate of an 8-year-old playing on 10-foot rims for the first time. He has seemingly reigned that in since making his announcement, choosing to be much more selective with his shots and generally allowing the offense to flow a bit more (although, when Ray McCallum was switched onto him Friday, Bryant demanded the ball like a bully demands your change in the lunch line).

When Kobe voluntarily kept himself out of the game in the fourth quarter against Minnesota last week, I knew Bryant’s mindset was changing. Here was Kobe, a man who lusted for end-of-game shots like no other player, requesting that he remain a spectator during crunch time. That, as much as anything, was a sign Bryant is not what he used to be, and I’m sure it resonated with him the same way it did with me. He has gone from fighting the disease of age foolishly to finding a more efficient, and perhaps more rewarding, niche.

Bryant had a vintage first quarter against the Spurs, scoring nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, mixing in longrange hits and midrange pullups, but he was just 1-of-7 for the remainder of the game. Watching him in person, it is obvious why Bryant has been so eager to shoot in the opening quarter. It seems like Kobe only has 12 good minutes in his legs each night, so if he is going to one of those classic scoring spurts, it is likely going to happen soon after the tip. Bryant did not have any lift on his jumper in the second half, and when the Spurs got up double digits in the fourth quarter, I saw Kobe motion to Byron Scott, signaling it was time for his night to end.

It was uplifting to see Bryant can still have a positive impact at the NBA level, and if he was fine with lowering his career scoring average and going through the round-the-clock treatment he has to deal with to recover from games, you could envision this version of Bryant playing another year or two for 20 minutes or so a night. But let’s be honest: He doesn’t want to be that guy, and I don’t want him to be that guy either. In fact, I was pretty upset that Bryant wasn’t in gunner mode against the Spurs. I, nor the swaths of “Laker” fans in Kobe jerseys, didn’t come to watch Lou Williams and D’Angelo Russell. I came to watch Kobe, and even if he shot 3-of-20, the slightest chance that he might get on a roll for a few possessions was more appealing than watching Robert Sacre airball a hookshot while Kobe stood in the corner.

That said, watching Kobe put up those ghastly 3-of-15 or 4-of-20 shooting performances early in the year was kind of like visiting a relative on their deathbed, clouding your memory of them with pictures of them at their worst. Bryant seems more at peace with his impending departure now, and as a result he is easing his way into the afterlife with his dignity intact.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock on Friday, the large collection of Kobe fans seated near the visiting tunnel started a Kobe chant.

It was then that I finally realized that my favorite athlete would soon be gone, and that the countless basketball masterpieces he provided, those sources of infinite joy, pride and comfort that outlined my childhood, were slowly fading away. I spent years obsessing over his each and every game, staying up late on school nights for those L.A. tip times and jolting to the library at lunch to watch the same YouTube clips day after day. But as prolonged as his stay atop the NBA mountain top seemed as he wraps up his 20th season in the league, I look back and wonder how it all went by so fast.


I had a tear in my eye.

I watched Bryant as he greeted Gregg Popovich at midcourt, sharing a hug and a laugh. And finally, I watched as Kobe walked toward the tunnel, his hand going between his chest and the air as he acknowledged the heartfelt response of the crowd. He moved briskly, his head bowed, humbled by another platoon of his supporters firmly entrenched behind enemy lines.

He thanked the crowd once again and kept walking.

And in the blink of an eye, he was gone into the darkness, forever lost behind the curtains.

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